By Rosemary Tomani
I read that the Goo Goo Dolls are coming home to play at Shea’s this week, and here’s a pathetic but true story about a time when most of us weren’t listening to them. It was 1986 and the Student Government Association at Erie Community College enlisted the Goo Goo Dolls to play in the school cafeteria after lunch. I was a young tech assistant at the college who’d never heard of them, so I locked my office and went downstairs toward the noise.
At 1 in the afternoon, they were dressed in pajamas and open bathrobes, and with stringy hair, they were cooking pancakes and bacon on electric frying pans that were plugged in to their amplifiers. The music was loud and raucous, and the students gathered there to watch them were stiff and uncertain.
Perched on metal folding chairs, the kids applauded politely after every song. To my unschooled ears, the songs were not songs. Where was the melody, the rhyme, the rhythm? I didn’t know that I was listening for the wrong sounds.
Music lovers say that if you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know. The same must true about punk. I don’t understand punk even though my son, born some 15 years after the Goos’ debut, played guitar for a local punk “singer.” Surely the Goos helped pave his way in the same way that music is the universal language.
Google the term punk: “a loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” Come to find out, punk’s message is not contained in melody or harmony. The early punk that the Goos immortalized has an “arrogant snarl.” It’s moved by a subversive attitude for which a post-steel town poverty was the perfect incubator.
But I didn’t get any of that back in the day, so after a few minutes I got up to leave. It was Johnny or maybe Robby who threw a pancake my way and yelled out, “Where are you going? We’re not done yet.” Red-faced, I tiptoed away in skirt and matching pumps, all the way back to my safe little office. I thought I would never see them again; I did not buy tickets for this week’s show.
But in Buffalo, everybody knows everybody else. In 1988, my brother married Kathy Takac, Robby’s cousin. Not a rock star, but a beauty queen, she had been crowned Countess Pulaska for the Dyngus Day Parade. A star in her own right who became the mother of four boys, my son’s cousins.
When I met Robby’s father at “Aunt” Alice’s funeral some years later, he told me that he thought Robby, who lived at home with him for so many years, would always live at home, and that he would always play music. He never imagined that Robby would sign a big contract and move to Los Angeles.
In part because of the Goo Goo Dolls, punk lives in 2018. The wreak-havoc lyrics demand freedom of expression from preconceived constraint and rejection of status quo. It’s “do your own thing” with ballast. Pour your heart out before the mic and scream your tirades into the smoke.
When I saw the Goos for the first time, they showed up in loungewear and screamed their hearts out for very little money. I still don’t “get” punk, but I realize that if you were sleeping, or holed up in your office as I was, you may have missed it.
Rosemary Tomani is an English professor at Erie Community College.